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Night has fallen
A revolution puts friends on separate paths

February 10, 2000
The Iranian

From "Saffrom Sky: A Life Between Iran and America" by Gelareh Asayesh (Beacon Press, November 1999). Asayesh grew up in Tehran. Her family moved to the United States in 1977, shortly before the Islamic Revolution transformed Iran. In 1990, after fourteen years of absence, she returned to Iran for a visit. Since then, she has returned almost every year, most recently for three months this past spring and summer. "Saffron Sky" chronicles both her trips and the emotional landscape of the immigrant, describing her struggle to bridge two irreconcilable worlds.

Asayesh is a longtime journalist who has worked as a staff writer for The Miami Herald and The Baltimore Sun. She has also written for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The St. Petersburg Times and other publications. She lives with her American husband and two young children in St. Petersburg, Fl. In the next few months she will be traveling to promote "Saffron Sky". For information on her speaking schedule, to order the book, or to read reviews and excerpts accompanied by photos, visit on the web. Also see more experts (1) (2)

November 1992

From Elham's house, we take a cab north into the foothills of the Alburz mountains. As we approach Jamaran, the streets become narrow and empty. The leaves on the sparse trees are golden. We pass the occasional dry goods store, a dry cleaner's, the hospital that was built when Ayatollah Khomeini moved here from the holy city of Qom. His doctor recommended the cleaner air of the mountains after a heart attack. At last we arrive at the house, just down the street from the modest mosque where the Imam sat on a balcony and waved a limp, tired hand at the masses below, his image broadcast around an incredulous world.

The house is small and nondescript except for the revolutionary guards who still protect it. They are polite, humble young men, a refreshing change from so many of their peers across the city. I produce my letter from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, which oversees the activities of newspaper reporters. While we wait, I look around the tiny garden, peering through sliding glass doors at two rooms containing a bed, a couch, a bookcase, and a telephone. From here, Khomeini challenged the West. From here, he made the decision to prolong the war with Iraq. From here, he left for the hospital where he drew his last breath, the whole world waiting to hear that he was, indeed, dead.

Soon, an old man in a vest, shirt, and pajama pants is climbing laboriously up the steps. Haj Issa Jafari bows in greeting as I introduce myself and my friend. He was the Imam's servant, he tells us. He looks curiously from me to Elham. We are both veiled, but Elham wears her flowing black chador as if it were a part of her. "It's like a badge of support for the revolution," she told me in the cab coming here. I spent most of the time stealing covert glances at her, trying to reconcile this dedicated fundamentalist with the girl who flirted with the boys in the school yard of Iran-Suisse Academy, with the intrepid woman who joined he Mujahedeen, with the prisoner who spent four years in a cell block. A few moments later, when the Haji starts showing us around, I hear Elham sniffling. I look at her and see that she is wiping away tears. "Why are you crying?" I murmur. "Well, I loved him a lot," she says of the man whose minions sent her to prison.

The Haji looks at her approvingly and continues the tour. "This is where they would sit," he says, referring to his master in the plural, both out of courtesy and awe. "These are their shoes. The people would sit over here."

I look at these scant relics of Khomeini's life intently, as if they can reveal to me the mystery of the man. Khomeini, the uncompromising voice of conscience raised for decades against the Shah. Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, whose return to Tehran in February 1979 marked the end of more than two thousand years of Iranian monarchy. Khomeini, the zealot, who urged mothers, during the bloodbaths of the early 1980s, to turn their children in if they opposed the regime. Khomeini, the ascetic, who was mourned as far away as Rockville, Maryland, because, as one Indian woman told me, he had restored pride to Islam.

"Two or three thousand people a day came from all over the country to see the master," the Haji is saying. Clerics just graduated from the seminary came to receive their turbans from his hands. Scholars came to confer with him. Couples came to have him inscribe their marriage contract. Many came just to kiss his hand.

"You see, the Imam had a love that was something else," the Haji says. "Because, afer centuries, suddenly a light shone from the heavens that illuminated the whole world. It was something like that. Because Islam was about to be destroyed."

He shows us the carpeted room next to the bedroom. "This is where they waited, " Haji says. "When the holy Imam rang, they could go in. Khamenei. Rafsanjani. Ardabili. All the leaders. Every day the master would listen to the eight o'clock news, then call them in."

He tells us his master's schedule ("He did not waste a minute of the day"): prayer, the study of the Koran, the work of the nation, meals at the adjoining house of his wife, visits with his beloved grandchildren, naps, and daily walks. "When he was walking around the garden, he would do three things at once," Haji says. "He had his radio in his hand, listening to the news. He had his worry beads in the other, saying the name of God. And he was walking."

He old man disappears for a while, returning with a tray of tea. He sits on the carpet in the room where the leaders of Iran waited to speak with the Imam. Elham and I sit beside him, taking the tiny glasses of tea in their saucers with a word of thanks. Haji is telling us how he fell and hurt his neck, trying to collect persimmons from the top branches of the tree in the garden. He strapped two ladders together to reach those branches because the Imam could not tolerate waste, he says.

He talks for a long time of his master's final days on earth, telling it like an epic tale. By the end, his eyes are shining with tears. "Tell the world," he says to me, looking as if he wishes to trust me but cannot be sure. "Tell all humanity."

Then he glances through the window at the sky and says: "It's time for prayer, and I'm keeping you're here."

Elham quickly takes the cue. "We've delayed you," she says. "Please, go ahead and pray, we'll wait." She turns to me, explaining as if I might not understand: "It's important to him to say his prayers promptly."

She asks the Haji for a mohr so that she can pray as well. The old man walks to a ledge in the wall. "Please help yourself," he says, lifting a bundle from the shelf. "Here is a janamaz. Whenever Ahmad-Agha visits he uses it."

Elham's eyes widen at this mention of Khomeini's son, an ayatollah himself. "This is Ahmad-Agha's janamaz?" she asks, awestruck. Haji nods, spreads it for her, and collects the tea things. "We've put you to so much trouble," I say. "It's my pleasure," Haji answers. "You just tell all this to the world."

I watch Elham pray, her black veil obscuring her face, the colorful red and blue prayer rug beneath her feet, the cloth for the mohr embroidered silver on black. I think about following her example, but it feels like hypocrisy. I sit on the edge of the couch instead. My camera hangs heavily around my neck, giving me the distance I seek.


Night has fallen. We walk in the narrow street next to a gully of rushing water that gleams faintly in the darkness. The neighborhood is suffering one of Tehran's frequent power outages, and oil lamps glow from the dim interiors of the stores we pass. Just as we are wondering how to get home, a driver gives us a ride to a nearby thoroughfare. "Here you can get a cab or a bus into the city," he says. He refuses to take our money.

Elham leads me to the bus stop, her veil flapping in the breeze. I climb into the smelly vehicle behind her. The driver jerks his head toward the back of the bus, the women's section. I sit down with a sigh of relief, glad I wore my veil to Jamaran. Even so, when we stopped by the mosque where Khomeini preached, the women who politely searched my bag could see hat I was not of them. My lack of faith was as visible to them as their devotion was to me. I could see it in their direct and guileless gaze, in the humbleness of their bearing. It made me feel small, as if they trod a higher path.

I shake off these fancies and return to Elham. The interior of the bus is illuminated, and in is yellow glow I can see my friend clearly, the piercing dark eyes, the long, strongly marked eyebrows. I am remembering when I first met her, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her parents were studying there, just as mine were. They lived in university housing, as we did. We played blindman's buff in the room she shared with her sister, their prison-striped bunk beds identical to the one my sister and I shared. When her family returned to Iran shortly after we did, Elham came to Iran-Suisse. She was an instant hit among my classmates, with her long hair and slim grace and the touch of American sophistication that had somehow eluded me. Though we were the same age, she always seemed older perhaps because she was the oldest of three children, used to responsibility.

Our paths separated when my family returned to America. I heard that she organized demonstrations at school, that she had joined the Mujahedeen, that she was on the run. When I was in college, she was in prison. When I was working for the Baltimore Sun, she was enrolled in university in Ahwaz, struggling to make up for lost time. She is a medical student now, close to attaining her first year of residency. It is a wonderful achievement, but her family rarely mentions it. The well-traveled, educated parents, the beautiful sister, the young brother with his skeptical eyes, seem subtly distanced from Elham. Elham and her black veil stand out in a household that is as Western as any I have seen. But it was not the family that changed, it was Elham.

Our school friends look at me askance when I mention her name. They nod with polite skepticism when I suggest that her conversion from enemy of the revolution to its ardent follower is genuine. They do not seem to find any mystery, as I do, in the way Elham's passionate idealism changed direction.

Now, on the bus, I find the courage to ask how it happened.

Elham seems happy to talk about it. "When I went to prison, I expected to instantly go to the torture chamber," she tells me. "Instead, they picked me up at 2 p.m. and I sat there until eleven at night. Then they took me to a room and talked to me. It's true that it was prison, but in reality I came out of bondage. I had time to think."

She decided the ideals of the Mujahedeen were an illusion, she says. The group had no tolerance for dissent; members were not even allowed to read or watch Iranian newscasts on the grounds that they were propaganda.

"When did you come to believe in the government?" I ask.

"It wasn't one particular point in time," she says. "It happened gradually."

The bus pulls to a stop. Elham hurries to the front to pay. "How many," the driver asks. "Two," she tells him. She ends the transaction with brisk efficiency as I trail in her wake. We descend into a brightly lit square where merchants are hawking bananas, colorful sweaters, lighting fixtures, and bolts of fabric. Our paths part here. "I'm going to Khomeini's tomb on Friday," I say. "Do you want to come?"

She does. I watch her disappear into the crowd, a black form swallowed up by so many others. ***

At Elham's suggestion, we take a cab to the south end of town and a bus from there. As we rattle through the fumes of South Tehran, Elham is telling me about Khomeini's funeral. She was among the masses who followed the body in a spectacle that seemed bizarre to the Western world. "You just wanted to do it," Elham says. "I was upset. It was like Ashura (the most important Shi'ite day of mourning, when Imam Hossein was murdered). All these people, beating their chests. A lot of people were walking barefoot."

"Walking barefoot?" I ask. "Why?"

"It was symbolic," Elham says. "People do the same kinds of things for movie stars. Like, what value is there to movie stars?"

I want her to decode for me her love for Khomeini, but she shakes her head helplessly. "I can't say I loved him for these reasons, here's one and here's two," Elham says. "Whatever I say can't do justice to it. It's like anyone you love. Like if someone asks why do you love your mother, what can you say? Do you know what I mean?"

We're in the kavir now, barren except for a lone water tower and a field of stubby pines, just planted and dusty. "Greenbelt Plan," a city sign proclaims. At least they're trying, I think to myself. In the distant haze, a gold dome and minarets rise from the desert. Khomeini's tomb is on the sprawling grounds of Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery, several miles south of Tehran on the way to Qom. We travel past the oversize hands holding a red tulip aloft, past the fountain of blood (water dyed red), which is mercifully silent. The bus turns off into a gigantic parking lot and pulls to a stop. We climb out and join the straggling crowd moving toward the shrine.

The smell of grilled meat wafts on the air, floating from a nearby concession stand. A few rosebushes are dwarfed by a sea of concrete. Revolutionary chants flow from a loudspeaker. Elham looks around her with distaste, both of us thinking of the simplicity of Jamaran. "If he were here, I don't think he'd care for all this formality," she says. "Maybe the people think it's their duty."

Our bags are searched before we go in; Khomeini's tomb is a prime target for bombings of the sort that claimed the lives of hundreds of government leaders in the 1980s, when the Mujahedeen were most active in their battle against the mullahs. Vast marble floors alternate with carpeted spaces under a ceiling that reminds me of a warehouse. The tomb lies at the center, marble covered by a green cloth the color associated with Islam. It is surrounded by a metal grille. The marble slab is a foot and a half deep in crumpled bills. A woman folds another bill and thrusts it through the grillework as I watch, pressing her lips against the metal and murmuring a prayer.

Elham searches out a prayer rug while I go about my interviews. I approach a family; the parents sitting next to their young son while a baby sister crawls on the smooth floor. They watch her play, seemingly in no hurry. The man says the usual things about Khomeini how he delivered Iran from the corrupt moral influence of the West and renewed Islam. His tanned face is calm, his eyes surrounded by laugh lines. He speaks with quiet sincerity. "When we made the revolution, I believed Iran to be in truth diseased," he says. "I went to war to save my country, to save my honor."

His son was born while he was a prisoner of war, he tells me. "How old was he when you saw him for the first time?" I ask. His poise wavers. "Ten," he says. I look at the boy, who listens quietly, at his mother, who has the face of a woman schooled to patience. "Was it worth it?" I ask her. She hesitates, searching for the right words. "Yes, it was worth it," she says in a shy, soft voice. "It was for God. To please God, anything a man can do is still too little."

I repeat my question to the boy. He pauses for a long time, leaning against his mother's knee, and I wonder if he is too shy to answer.

Then he says: "My uncle was martyred in '61." That would have been 1982, in the early years of the war. His parents look sad, remembering. "If my baba had been martyred too, it wouldn't have been worth it," the boy says. He speaks with a touch of defiance, sudden tears in his eyes. He is twelve years old and has only known a father for the past two years of his life. "No, it wouldn't have been worth it."

His parents look away, their eyes damp. We share the silence. After a moment, I thank them and leave.

A few minutes later, I am interviewing a teenage boy who is memorizing verses for a Koran recitation contest. A grizzled man in army fatigues, walkie-talkie in hand, marches up to me. "You!: he barks, using the familiar form of speech in an unconscious or deliberate? act of rudeness. "Go over there. This is the men's section."

"I'm just asking some questions," I say. I show him my letter of authorization. He insists on escorting me to the women's section nonetheless, scowling the whole way. Elham comes up as he leaves, and I tell her what's happened. "What a jerk," I say. "He was so rude."

Elham is clearly disturbed. "Let's go talk to him," she says firmly. I follow in her wake, intrigued. She goes up to the man and engages his attention with a polite greeting. "It's a good thing that his lady is Iranian," Elham tells him. "I would suggest that next time you be a little more congenial. It would be nice to say a greeting. I think it would be better for Islam and Iran." The man refuses to look at her, though her black chador keeps him silent. "Insha'allah in the future it will be so," she says.

As we leave, I feel a wave of sympathy for my old friend. Not because the girl I knew has been reincarnated as a dogged woman, whose most cherished possession is a sample of the earth from Khomeini's grave, collected from as close as possible to the actual tomb. Not because her choices have turned her into an outcast among her family and friends. But because she struggles to maintain her ideals in a cynical world.

That, at least, we still have in common.

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